David Blackburn

Amateur fantasies and professional realities

Amateur fantasies and professional realities
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As was to be expected, it rained. Drizzle was in the air at times yesterday when the Authors XI turned out to mark 150 years of The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (the latest edition of which the Spectator reviewed here). Sebastian Faulks, Ed Smith and Kamila Shamsie were among the players, all of whom were dressed in Victorian garb and wore joyous grins.

The Author’s XI has a book out; an account of their tour recent of England. It is a gently beguiling book, revealing something of life, the writers and, of course, cricket. It’s a perfect match. As Sebastian Faulks puts it in the foreword:

‘Amateur cricketers tend to be vain, anecdotal, passionate, knowledgeable, neurotic and given to fantasy. So do writers.’

The amateur is supposed to envy the professional, living the amateur’s fantasy. But, on Sunday afternoon during the recent test match between England and New Zealand, the watching amateur would have been shaken by a professional’s reality.

Nick Compton came out to bat for England, certain in the knowledge that success would guarantee his involvement in this summer’s Ashes series. It is not an exaggeration to say that he became petrified, and now his international career is gravely threatened.

The symptoms were minor at first. Slovenly footwork and poor timing gave him a slow start, whereas his partner dominated the strike and found some early form. The pressure built. Compton wanted the reassurance of feeling bat on ball, and he grew scatty as he tried to hit everything. His arms became rigid as he searched for the ball, denying him the freedom to deflect the bowling into gaps and build his innings.

No batsman can survive for long while going straight and hard at the ball. Compton’s tragedy was that he survived for an hour and half. It was excruciating Reality TV. I found myself standing up to watch it, so restless had it made me.

Test match batting is a long waltz involving many positions. Compton could not measure his steps, so he fell behind the beat and ever deeper into his mind's recesses as he tried to think his way back into the rhythm of the dance. His face betrayed his torment. His head jerked over his left shoulder, as if he was trying to rotate it. His eyes had the look of a tent-dwelling fortune-teller: a harsh, unforgiving light stared from the gloom beneath the visor of his helmet. His lips and nose contorted into a sneer: the mark, not of concentration but hopeless obsession. Truly, you can want something too much.

There is no pleasure in watching a human being implode; to see that years of dedicated work count for nothing in some circumstances. This applies to every walk of life. And each walk of life has its own solutions when trouble strikes. Sporting ills are, it seems, best cured by rediscovering joy because, at root, why would anyone would bother with sport, especially a game as strange as cricket, unless they enjoyed it?

In this morning’s Times, Michael Atherton gives Compton some excellent (though easy) advice: find your inner schoolboy; rediscover your joy of hitting the ball. Or, to put it another way, don some Victorian clothes and give in to fantasy. This amateur cricketer’s small fantasy is to see a renewed Compton in England colours in a few weeks’ time.